Facebook versus Twitter

Facebook is the past, Twitter is the future.

Or phrased less starkly, Facebook reconnects while Twitter connects.

All of my friends on Facebook are exactly that: friends from real life, or at the very least, people whom I actually know. Colleagues, students, family members, former classmates, childhood friends. A significant chunk of those Facebook friends are ghosts from the past, people whom I haven’t seen, spoken to, or even thought of in years, maybe decades. Facebook has reconnected me — albeit in a very superficial sense — to these people. I’d even estimate that friends from my past now outnumber current friends and acquaintances on Facebook. Given the exponential algorithm driving the growth of social networks (like the old Faberge shampoo commercial, you tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on), it’s not surprising that these reconnections to the past began with a single high school friend, last seen at our graduation in 1989. The ripple effect from this single act of “friending” led to dozens of acquaintances from my hometown.

The reciprocal nature of “friendship” on Facebook reinforces the site’s re-networking aspect. You can only befriend people who have befriended you. Facebook’s insistence upon reciprocity appealed to me at first, ensuring that nobody could lurk on my profile without likewise surrendering their own profile to me. Yet this feature, that I found so comforting when I first dipped into social networking, I now find to be confining, perhaps even the greatest limitation of Facebook. Reciprocity guarantees a closed platform, a fixed loop that cannot expand beyond itself.

This stands in contrast to Twitter, where reciprocity is not required. You can follow someone without them following you. The effect of this asymmetric system is that many of the people I follow I have never met. And I may never. Likewise many of my followers are absolute strangers. Yet many of them share interests with me: pedagogy, literature, digital humanities, even music (at least two of my followers added me after I wrote about the band Shearwater). So this is what I mean when I say Twitter connects.

There is another crucial difference between Facebook and Twitter that associates the former with the past and the latter with the future. Even with its new layout and feed, Facebook does not truly operate in real time. Facebook is still something like a bulletin board. My status updates, therefore, tend to be sly comments or key links that I’ve thought about and pondered and that I want to remain “active” for a day or two. Constant status updates would quickly get lost in the clutter of irritating quiz results, meaningless gift hugs, and holiday Peeps that populate the Facebook news feed.

Twitter conversely offers a more stream-of-consciousness aesthetic. If I immediately follow one tweet with another, I’m not so concerned that the first is going to get lost, as my followers are seeing a feed of my tweets in whatever application they’re using. It is also a matter of one or two clicks (depending on your Twitter client) to see my Twitter posts in aggregate, something much more difficult to achieve in Facebook.

So, to be systematic about the differences between Facebook and Twitter, I present this chart:

Facebook Twitter
past future
reconnect connect
static dynamic
closed open
pond stream

The last distinction — pond versus stream — evokes the dominant ecology of each social network. And I for one would rather be in the flowing stream than the stagnant pond.

Television Emulation for the Atari VCS

This is absolutely stunning: Ian Bogost had his computer science students at George Tech modify Stella, the opensource Atari 2600 emulator, to reproduce the same kind of visual artifacts you would’ve seen when you played the VCS on a CRT television (those big boxy TVs with tubes, for those of you who don’t remember). Their CRT Emulator will soon be a configurable option in Stella.

Now we’ll finally be able to recapture the original experience of playing Yar’s Revenge on your parents’ 19″ Magnovox, minus the wood console.


The crisp image in the bottom half is what we see when we play an Atari 2600 game on Stella now. The top image is what we would have seen playing in the late seventies on a television — and what we’ll soon be able to experience with Stella (Click the image for a larger version).

And here’s a question I’ll be asking my videogame students today: why would degrading the graphics on a game actually be a good thing?

Zen Scavenger Essay Writing

Lately I’ve been wondering how to use Jane McGonigal’s Zen Scavenger Hunt idea in my teaching. A Zen Scavenger Hunt is essentially a reversed-engineered scavenger hunt. The hunters go out and find ten or or so items and only afterward do they receive the list of the items they’re supposed to be scavenging for. The participants have to improvise a series of hacks and demonstrations to prove that their items perfectly match the list.

The most faithful pedagogical analog to a Zen Scavenger Hunt might be having students write about anything using any format or style, and then give them the question they were supposed to be answering. The students next have to persuade me (and their classmates) that their essays do indeed answer the question, perhaps via footnotes or annotations.

The bulk of creative and critical work on the students’ part comes in at the second, performative level, in the rhetorical act of proving by whatever means necessary that their essays match — and in fact have always matched — my question.

A less faithful, though perhaps more intriguing possibility for introducing the same kind of backwards-modding into student work might involve using Wordle. I can imagine students writing (though I am pedagogically opposed to overreliance on such writing) a typical essay, say an analysis of the failure of cognitive mapping in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange. They feed their essay into Wordle, and then other students must recreate the argument of the original student essay based on the Wordle-produced word cloud.

Or, in a variation of this assignment, the professor creates a Wordle cloud out of a scholarly essay, and the students work collaboratively to reconstruct the original publication. So, here’s a word cloud generated from Rachel Adam’s essay in Twentieth Century Literature 53.3 (2007) on Tropic of Orange, “The Ends of American, the Ends of Postmodernism” (larger version):

Rachel Adams on "Tropic of Orange"

Could a group of students reconstruct an essay out of this word cloud? And then persuade me and their classmates, through an overlay of textual and spoken improvisation, that their new essay is in fact a faithful recreation of the original?

We’re in Borges territory here, but it’s someplace I think students need to spend more time.

Electronic Literature Course Description

A few of my English department colleagues and myself are preparing to propose a new Electronic Literature course, to replace a more vaguely named “Textual Media” class in the university course catalog. Here is an incredibly first draft version of the course description, building in part on language from the Electronic Literature Organization’s own description of electronic literature:

Electronic Literature (3 credits) Electronic literature refers to expressive texts that are born digital and can only be read, interacted with, or otherwise experienced in a digital environment. Contemporary writers, artists, and designers are producing a wide range of electronic literature, including hypertext fiction, kinetic poetry, interactive fiction, computer-generated poetry and stories, digital mapping, and online collaborative writing projects via SMS, emails, and blogs. In all of these cases, electronic literature takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts of stand-alone or networked computers. Such literary texts often demand new reading and interpretative practices, which this class will develop in students.

I’m eager to hear any feedback about this purposefully generic description.

“Africanization” Disappears from NYT Headline

I’ve written before about the way Africa still functions for the news media as a “dark continent” of primitive savagery. So what a sad gift this headline was the other day in the New York Times: “Warming Leads to Water Shortage and ‘Africanization’ of Spain.”

I was getting all psyched up to write about this new symbolic use of Africa — intended by the article as a metonym for desertification, but suggestive of a whole host of fears of the foreign Other, such as the dangerous continent of Africa invading the shores of Spain, the gateway to Europe and Western Civilization — when I went to reread the article and discovered…the headline had been changed!

In the space of three days, somehow the word “Africanization” was dropped from the headline, and the article title now reads: “In Spain, Water is a New Battleground.”

So here I have another gift, another example of the seeming impermanence of new media coupled with the ubiquity of saved or cached data, which allows us to reveal the revisions that the online world feels no need to mention. In this case, the original headline is saved in my TimesFile.

On the one hand, I applaud the Times for yanking a word from their headline which plays upon European fears of African invasion. On the other hand, I wish the Times had made note of the revised headline, and perhaps even explained the reasons for the revision, rather than pretending like it had never happened.

If The Newspaper of Record is so fluid about its online presence, I think we need a new definition of what counts as a “record.”

Reading Lists for Fall 2008

My course descriptions for Fall 2008 have been up for a while, but here are the specific reading lists for both classes (cross-posted from my official university site):

Reading List for ENGL 343 – Textual Media

Reading List for HNRS 414:003 – American Postmodernism

What happens on Facebook when we die?

Anybody who follows Facebook has probably heard about the user who found it impossible to delete his account; even after he deactivated his profile, it showed up in searches and various Facebook news feeds.

If you can’t get out of Facebook when you’re alive, what happens when you die?

What happens to your Facebook profile when you die?

Sadly, this is not a rhetorical question. I’ve had two Facebook friends—first a colleague (and true friend) and second a former student last month—pass away. Yet their Facebook pages persist, digital ghosts with mini-feeds still growing, updated with the usual nonsense and noise (“Mike joined the group Free David Hasselhoff” and “Barrald Terrence and Will Navidson are now friends”) that fill anybody’s Facebook feeds.

In fact, in the second case, I only found out about my student’s death from a terse, surreal update to her profile by a family member, which then showed up in my Facebook news feed. Her Facebook profile has since become a kind of memorial, with dozens of friends writing their goodbyes on her “wall.”

In the first case, nobody has written on my friend’s wall in the six months since he died, though he was loved and respected by hundreds of people across the country. I suspect the difference between my student and my friend’s post-mortem Facebook activity is generational; digital mourning, at least in a consumer-oriented space like Facebook, is considered insensitive or insincere by anyone over the age of 30. And so my friend’s profile is eerily silent, his feed simply stating with no irony that he “has no recent activity.”

I imagine that eventually Web 2.0 will catch up with real life and incorporate grieving into its ecological landscape. Maybe this will be the beta version of Web 3.0.

I don’t know which is creepier: a Facebook engine that doesn’t know when we die and carries on as if we hadn’t; or a Facebook engine that somehow taps into public records and newspaper obituaries, detecting when we die, and initiates a sort of prescribed last will and testament profile update, a more tactful 404 error message.

Making Wikipedia a Class Assignment

Slashdot has a post today about a professor who requires students to edit Wikipedia for a class assignment.

Come on, Slashdot, this is old, old news! My colleague Mills Kelly has had many Wikipedia assignment in the past several years, while over a year ago I had my 21st Century Literature Class do extensive edits on the House of Leaves Wikipedia entry. (And my assignment actually caused a bit of an old-fashioned flame war between my students and some of the self-appointed Wikipedia moderators.)

More Political Tag Clouds

It doesn’t attempt the kind of analysis I try with the State of the Union addresses, but chir.ag has a great visual tool that builds tag clouds for hundreds of important presidential speeches and texts, all the way back to the Declaration of Independence and George Washington’s State of the Union speeches.

The site has a slider, allowing you to dynamically scroll through the clouds, seeing at a glance what words stick out during what time periods. In the late sixties, “Vietnam” is very bold, indicating it was used quite frequently in presidential speeches. The word “economic” dominates the seventies.

Here’s one surprise: during the eight Reagan years one prominent word is “God.” And that’s one word that doesn’t often appear in G.W. Bush’s speeches, even though he is far more evangelical and beholden to the Christian Right than Reagan ever was.

One thing that would make chir.ag’s dynamic tag cloud even more functional would be an “anchor” feature, in which you could select a specific word, and that word would be highlighted all the way through the hundreds of clouds, whenever it appeared. It’d be fascinating to take an unlikely word (for example, “healing”–which was one of the top 100 words in Gerald Ford’s first address to Congress on August 12, 1974) and see who else uses that word and in what contexts.

The Amazing Amazon Mechanical Turk

Clive over at Collision Detection reports on the new Amazon service called Amazon Mechanical Turk, which allows companies to hire (via Amazon) “Turks” who, in their spare time, do seemingly mindless tasks online, for example, tag photographs of shoes according to color. The tasks are mindless–but only for humans who have minds. For computers, the tasks are monumental. AI and visual pattern recognition just hasn’t reached this stage yet. Anyone can sign up as a “Turk” and whenever they have a spare moment at their cubicle, click away and earn as much as $30 a day.

What intrigues me most about this service is the name: Amazon Mechanical Turk. This is a nod to a famous 18th century hoax. As Amazon explains:

In 1769, Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen astonished Europe by building a mechanical chess-playing automaton that defeated nearly every opponent it faced. A life-sized wooden mannequin, adorned with a fur-trimmed robe and a turban, Kempelen’s “Turk” was seated behind a cabinet and toured Europe confounding such brilliant challengers as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. To persuade skeptical audiences, Kempelen would slide open the cabinet’s doors to reveal the intricate set of gears, cogs and springs that powered his invention. He convinced them that he had built a machine that made decisions using artificial intelligence. What they did not know was the secret behind the Mechanical Turk: a human chess master cleverly concealed inside.

I had heard of this story before…from the German critic Walter Benjamin. In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin writes:

The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings.

Benjamin goes on to compare this “automaton” to a certain view of history, which fails to see through the illusions that veil the real mechanisms of power.

I’m no conspiracy theorist and I see no conspiracy here. But I can’t help but gleefully wonder if some coder at Amazon was familiar with this Benjamin passage, and that the name of Amazon’s version of artificial artificial intelligence was inspired by a vision of a Turkish puppet smoking a hookah.

D.C. Area Humanities Forum on Video Games

Taking Games Seriously: The Impact of Gaming Technology in the Humanities
Monday, May 15th from 4-6pm
Location: Car Barn 316, 3520 Prospect St. NW, near Georgetown University

Overview and Participants:
Please join Michelle Lucey-Roper (Federation for American Scientists) and Jason Rhody (National Endowment for the Humanities) for a discussion moderated by Mark Sample (George Mason University) on gaming and the humanities. Discussion will center on gaming and its implications for education; thinking about ways to exploit aspects of video game technology to create innovative learning spaces; and games as a possible conduit to online archives or museum collections.

Panelist: Michelle Lucey-Roper is the Learning Technologies Project Manager for the Discover Babylon Project and the Digital Promise Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in Washington, DC. She has created and managed several technology projects and research initiatives that helped to improve public access to primary source materials. While working towards her doctorate on the interaction of word and image, Lucey-Roper researched and designed curricula for a wide range of subject areas and created new information resources. Before joining FAS, she worked as a librarian, teacher and most recently at the Library of Congress as a research associate. She earned her B.A. at Trinity College, Hartford, CT; her M.A at King’s College, London; and received a doctorate from Oxford University.

Panelist: Jason Rhody, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Maryland, is currently writing his dissertation, entitled Game Fiction. He has taught courses and given conference presentations on new media, electronic literature, and narrative. He currently works on a web-based education initiative, EDSITEment, for the National Endowment for the Humanities. He previously worked for the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, an institute dedicated to using technology to enable humanities research and teaching. Jason writes about games and literature on his blog, Miscellany is the Largest Category.

Moderator: Mark Sample teaches and researches both contemporary American literature and New Media/Digital Culture, and he is always exploring how literary texts interact with, critique, and rework visual and media texts. His current research projects include a book manuscript on the early fiction of Don DeLillo and Toni Morrison, exploring their engagement with consumer culture, particularly how they use what Walter Benjamin calls “dialectical images” to reveal the latent violence of everyday things. Another project concerns the interplay between video games, the War on Terror, and the production of knowledge. Professor Sample received an M.A. in Communication, Culture, and Technology from Georgetown University (1998) and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (2004).

RSVP for dinner:
There will be an informal dinner after the forum, at a cost of $10 per person.
You must RSVP for dinner by May 8th.


  1. Directions to campus
  2. Parking options adjacent to the Car Barn: Parking options Street parking around campus is severely limited and strictly enforced by the DC police (MPD) and the DC Department of Public Works (DPW). Most streets require a Zone 2 residential permit issued by the District of Columbia for parking for longer than two hours. A limited number of metered spaces are available on Reservoir Road, 37th Street and Prospect Street. For those up for a short walk, the Southwest Garage is accessible from Canal Road or Prospect St.
  3. Map to the Car Barn.
  4. The nearest metro station is Rosslyn, across Key Bridge.

About the Forum:
Co-sponsored by the Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship (CNDLS– http://cndls.georgetown.edu) at Georgetown University and George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, the DC Area Technology & Humanities Forum explores important issues in humanities computing and provides an opportunity for DC area scholars interested in the uses of new technology in the humanities to meet and get acquainted.

For more information, contact Susannah McGowan, CNDLS, sm256@georgetown.edu

The Best Spam. Ever.

Yesterday I received this bizarre spam, from someone “named” Solly Brit. The subject heading was “time card celibacy” and this nonsense phrase only hints at the random strings of English in the message, which reads like some methed-up computer-generated poetry slam:

zest, detect pronoun imperfection and lens radically, in as historian disposable of rest home the
four milk chocolate. with insure to tact gatecrasher rainbow tower that collectible misunderstand hither a recollection, learned nude, to an teem
committed shirt extracurricular,… progress. stale, a smelly, as wounded

jovial minority the an healer,
big deal rebel financing stepbrother as!!! adversary lethally a the and tinderbox bounce supply and demand Jun. the fishing rod, putt
left-wing unzip platter. council

rape welter player a public school esoteric ventriloquist that inadvisable but pant gazelle as chinos, stockholder of capitalization, at undressed and
pacifist as precautionary of baptismal black market as
kiln gallon, nomination, not of an G-string, to as geriatric the
meningitis the O! footpath tawny, of bluegrass, wrestle,. to bash.

Jackson Mac Low, watch out!

Professors, students, and emails

A recent article in the New York Times details some of the changes that email has wrought upon professor-student relationships in higher ed:

At colleges and universities nationwide, e-mail has made professors much more approachable. But many say it has made them too accessible, erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy distance.

I agree with the first statement: email can create virtual open office hours, and there is no doubt that I hear from (and respond to) students who would never–often for very practical reasons–be able to make my real world office hours.

But I have problems with the second statement: that students should somehow be kept at a healthy distance, as if they carried a transmittable disease that I, in my pure, uncontaminated Ivory Tower, must be protected from.

Yes, it can be annoying when I receive emails like some of the ones mentioned in the articles: naive students asking what kind of binder to buy for class, drunken students offering excuses for absences from class, and angry students writing about a grade. But these kinds of messages are extremely rare. And when I do get one, I don’t feel as if the hallowed walls of academia are under assault by a new generation of disrespectful hooligans.

But perhaps what bothered me most about the Times article is how it ends:

Meg Worley, an assistant professor of English at Pomona College in California, said she told students that they must say thank you after receiving a professor’s response to an e-mail message.

“One of the rules that I teach my students is, the less powerful person always has to write back,” Professor Worley said.

This directive–that “the less powerful person always has to write back”–I find especially troubling. There’s the simple practical matter that the fewer trivial email messages I receive, the better. If I received a “thank you” message every time I emailed a student, I’d be wading in a flood of insignificant, gnat-like emails. But my real concern is that this directive encapsulates a Miss Manners type of social hierarchy full of scraping and bowing. Yes, in a way, I am more powerful than my students, since I have a Ph.D. and I am evaluating them. But, in another way, I could care less that I’m more powerful than my students, and foregrounding that kind of power relation short-circuits my pedagogical approach to the classroom. Add to this the fact that, truth be told, most students could care less themselves that I’m more powerful than them–since it’s only symbolic capital that I yield–and you are left with a directive that seems to be more about stroking professors’ egos than about conveying respect.

I’d rather drop the farce, treat my students as adults, and put up with the occasional annoying (but usually hilarious) email.

WordCount Poetry

My students and I have been playing with WordCount, Jonathan Harris’s slick database of the 86,000 or so most commonly used words in the English language, ranked according to frequency.

As Harris points out (playfully calling it a “conspiracy“), there are many sequences of adjacent words in the ranked list of 86,800 words that are either eerily prescient, beautiful poetry, are both.

For example, sequence 1941-1945 reads “faith establish facts requires membership” — which does in fact seem to say something about the notion of faith in today’s America.

What other found poetry awaits in the list of words?

Here are a few I discovered:

love means upon areas effect likely (words 384-389)
hate ease shadow inevitably loose (3107-3111)
langley channelled haemorrhage (14867-14869)
unfortunately noise revolution index rare (2172-2176)

And actually, come to think of it, this compilation of lines seems to have a dark undercurrent of meaning flowing through it, too.

Using Understanding Comics to Understand New Media

A few weeks ago I posted some thoughts about the rhetoric of the hyperlink, which I was working on with my Textual Media course. I’ve complicated my students thinking (I hope) by suggesting that we can use Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud’s wonderfully insightful dissection of comics (itself in comics form) to understand new media.

Among the many useful keywords and concepts McCloud provides is a rubric of panel-to-panel transitions, in other words, techniques for tying together two distinct panel frames on a page. Inspired, I think, partly by an awareness of how cuts work in film, McCloud gives us these six categories:

  1. moment-to-moment (showing the passing of time)
  2. action-to-action (showing cause and effect)
  3. subject-to-subject (in film, an example would be a cut to closeup or a wide shot)
  4. scene-to-scene (shifting the action across significant time and/or space)
  5. aspect-to-aspect (what McCloud calls a “wandering eye”; these transitions are rarely used in Western comics, but they appear much more frequently in Japanese comics, usually to evoke a mood or atmosphere)
  6. non-sequitur (with “no logical relationship” between panels)

Now, I wonder — and I’ll be asking my students this soon — what are the new media analogs of these transitions? How, say, can simply using text and hypertext evoke these different transitions? Some are easier to imagine than others. Hypertext on the World Wide Web makes it incredibly easy to create non-sequitur links. But what would an aspect-to-aspect link look like?